Sunday, June 17, 2018
As the film opens a man known as Biscuit (played by Richard Burton) is desperately trying to contact a woman he knows only as Sea Wife. The main story is then told in flashback.
In 1942 a cargo ship packed with a miscellaneous assortment of passengers, all intent on escaping the approaching Japanese Army, leaves Singapore. Shortly afterwards the ship is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Four passengers find themselves in a rubber dinghy. There’s Biscuit, there’s a rather aggressive slightly Colonel Blimp-ish middle-aged Englishman who becomes known as Bulldog, there’s the ship’s purser who is christened Number Four and then there’s Sea Wife (Joan Collins). The purser gives her this name, which refers to a kind of mermaid. Sea Wife is in fact a nun, a fact known to the purser, but for some reason she decides not to inform the other two of this fact.
Of course there are tensions between these four people. And of course Biscuit, having no idea she is a nun, falls in love with Sea Wife. As for Sea Wife, she clearly has some feelings for Biscuit but it’s also clear that she takes being a nun rather seriously.
The plot does become rather contrived, which tends to happen with stories involving castaways and desert islands. And movies involving castaways and desert islands also have a tendency to use this setup for the purposes of social commentary. Sea Wife is no exception. Number Four is a black man, which gives the movie the opportunity to lecture us on the evils of racial prejudice. The only problem with this is that the Japanese characters are the most incredibly stereotypical evil sub-human monsters you’ll ever encounter in a movie, so the rather confused message seems to be that racial prejudice is very very wrong sometimes but it’s OK at other times.
The four main cast members are all quite competent. Richard Burton was never quite a conventional romantic leading man but he’s effective enough. He overacts of course, but he always did and he is playing a man who has developed a pretty serious obsession so it’s forgivable.
Joan Collins has by far the most interesting role since she’s not only playing a part for the benefit of the other passengers, she’s also playing a part for her own purposes. Whatever other reasons she may have had for not revealing that she is a nun it does give her the chance to pretend to be a civilian for a while. It’s not that she’s a scheming type of woman, on the whole she’s quite sympathetic but she does cause Biscuit a great deal of confusion and grief. I think she caries off the role quite well - she is supposed to be playing a woman who is not quite sure of her own motivations and her own feelings and she captures Sea Wife’s uncertainties and fears quite well. She also doesn’t overact anywhere near as much as the other three principals!
Naturally there’s a great deal of overheated romantic melodrama resulting from Sea Wife’s lack of candour about her occupation, with poor Biscuit doing everything he can think of to convince her to accept his love and Sea Wife being torn apart by her own confused feelings. Burton and Collins handle all this reasonably well and they do have the right kind of slightly offbeat chemistry to carry it off.
Sea Wife is, surprisingly, readily available on DVD in at least Regions 1, 2 and 4. I saw a rental copy of the Region 4 disc. There are no extras but the anamorphic transfer is very good.
Sea Wife really should not work at all. There is just so much about the plot that is so hopelessly contrived and it includes several egregious examples of one of my great pet hates - characters acting out of character just so the writer can make a political point. There’s also the difficulty that there seems to be no convincing reason for Sea Wife’s deception. The ending does work and it feels right. There are all sorts of things wrong with this movie but Richard Burton and Joan Collins are worth watching. And it’s just an odd sort of movie with a certain weird charm. Recommended, but with rather a lot of reservations.
Saturday, June 9, 2018
The movie is based on the first three Hornblower novels to be published, and especially the very first Hornblower book, The Happy Return. C.S. Forester had some involvement with the script.
It is 1807 and the British frigate Lydia has been at sea for seven months. Not just at sea, but out of sight of land. This is in accordance with the Admiralty’s orders and Captain Horatio Hornblower has chosen to interpret his orders very literally indeed. The crew of the Lydia are close to breaking point. Food is running low, fresh water is running even lower, scurvy is stalking the ship and there has been not a trace of wind for a disturbingly long time. Having gone seven months without sighting land there is of course considerable doubt as to whether they are actually anywhere near the spot at which they have been ordered to make landfall. Captain Hornblower has his doubts as well but there is no way he is going to let those doubts show.
There’s also the little matter of the Natividad, a Spanish ship of the line which has just arrived in the vicinity. The Lydia is hopelessly outgunned by the Natividad but somehow or other Hornblower is going to have to destroy or capture her. In fact Hornblower is going to find that the Natividad is a problem that comes back to haunt him.
The Hornblower of the novels is by no means a conventional hero. He is filled with self-doubts and self-recriminations and he is a man to whom command does not come easily. He has trained himself to play the part convincingly but he feels that he is a fake. He’s extraordinarily complex by the standards of adventure heroes. A slightly flawed hero who struggles, mostly successfully, to overcome his flaws. He’s also a very introverted and somewhat self-obsessed hero. He’s an admirable character, but he’s admirable in spite of himself. His slightly tense relationships with his junior officers and with the men under his command add yet another layer of complexity.
All of this was a challenge for Gregory Peck. Hornblower was a moody introvert and the script had removed much of the interest from the character. Peck really had to work hard to make the most of what he was left with, which was basically a few idiosyncrasies. Fortunately he was up to the challenge and gives a performance that is sympathetic, occasionally slyly amusing and with at least a few suggestions of hidden depth. His Hornblower is a low-key swashbuckling hero.
I’m not sure about Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara. She’s an actress I’ve never warmed to and there’s no real chemistry between the two leads.
Look out for Christopher Lee and Stanley Baker in minor roles.
Technically this is a very impressive movie indeed. The sea battle sequences are absolutely superb and they’re suitably thrilling. Walsh’s mastery of action film-making is very much in evidence.
Although it has a few problems Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. is still fine entertainment. Gregory Peck is surprisingly effective (and in my view he’s a better and more interesting Hornblower than Ioan Gruffudd in the late 90s TV movies) and the sea battles are magnificent. Highly recommended.
Saturday, June 2, 2018
Taylor plays Detective Sergeant Christopher Kelvaney. He’s been accepting pay-offs from mobster Dan Beaumonte (George Raft) in return for doing routine favours. Now Beaumonte wants a very big favour from him. Kelvaney and his rookie cop kid brother Eddie (Steve Forrest) have arrested a rather nasty punk named Fallon for murder. It’s Eddie’s evidence that is going to convict the punk but Beaumonte wants Fallon to be allowed to walk. Fallon is very small fry but apparently he could make life uncomfortable for Beaumonte and his associates, and Beaumonte doesn’t like things that make him uncomfortable. Beaumonte isn’t an unreasonable man. Normally he’d just have an inconvenient witness like Eddie killed, but since Chris Kelvaney has been useful in the past he’s prepared to offer a special deal. He’ll buy Eddie off instead of having him rubbed out.
This movie doesn’t quite follow a standard film noir template. There are women with colourful pasts but they don’t quite fit the femme fatale mould. Chris Kelvaney is not quite a classic noir protagonist - he’s already thoroughly crooked when the story opens. On the other hand while he might be corrupt he hasn’t reached rock bottom. He’s going to find out jus how much further he has to fall. He has no illusions about himself but he sees himself as a realist. It’s a corrupt world. If you try to be honest you’re a sucker. Smart guys accept reality. No-one really gets hurt. Well, nobody that matters. But now things are getting out of control. The one decent thing about Chris is that he cares about Eddie but maybe caring won’t be enough to keep his brother alive.
The most impressive thing about Taylor’s performance is its unsentimentality. Chris Kelvaney is not a nice guy and Taylor doesn’t try to make him noble or heroic.
By this stage of his career George Raft had grown tired of playing mobsters and heavies but fortunately he was persuaded to accept this role. Maybe there were actors who could play these kinds of roles just as well as George Raft, but there was nobody who could play them better. Dan Beaumonte is very smooth and very self-assured but within his first thirty seconds of screen time Raft has convinced us that this is the kind of guy you don’t ever want to get on the wrong side of. Raft doesn’t need to raise his voice in order to convey purposeful menace. It’s Raft at his best, giving a chilling performance.
Visually this movie isn’t quite regulation noir. It’s an MGM movie and it looks a bit glossier than a RKO or a Warner Brothers noir. That’s not really a weakness. This movie is not about street hoodlums. It’s about big time gangsters and their world is pretty glamorous, on the surface at least.
Of course this being an MGM movie you might be wondering if Rogue Cop is going to be a bit inclined to pull its punches. It’s hard to answer that question without risking spoilers. Personally I think this film is pretty satisfyingly hard-edged and I think there’s enough here to qualify it as genuine film noir. Director Roy Rowland keeps things taut and he throws in a pretty decent action finale.
Rogue Cop doesn’t seem to have made it to DVD which is a great pity. I caught this movie on TCM and the print they screened was pretty good.
Great performances by Robert Taylor, George Raft and Anne Francis and a tough unsentimental mood add up to a very underrated movie. Highly recommended.
Friday, May 25, 2018
It begins with the discovery of a body floating in the Thames. The body is that of Oxford academic Professor Raven and he has clearly been murdered. He had been the head of an archaeological research institute and when he disappeared the Kytang Wafers disappeared as well. The Kytang Wafers are three stones that had been fused together, containing inscriptions that may prove the existence of a very early Asian civilisation. The Kytang Wafers now have political importance as well since their existence is very inconvenient for one of the powerful neighbours of the small modern-day state of Kytang. That powerful neighbour has always argued that Kytang was never more than an insignificant province which should be re-absorbed as soon as possible.
The mystery element doesn’t stay a mystery for long but that’s OK because after all this is an Edgar Wallace adaptation and Wallace was known as a writer of thrillers rather than of mysteries.
John Bentley was one of those reliable English actors who made a fine hero in his younger days (playing dashing figures like the Toff and Paul Temple) and made an equally fine policeman in middle age. Patrick Allen overacts enjoyably as American archaeologist Nelson Pollard (he’s a suspect because he was captured in the Korean War so he could have been brainwashed by the communists), as does John Glyn-Jones as the institute’s deputy director (he’s a suspect also since he’s a Czech and therefore could be a communist agent). William Gaunt (later better known for the TV series The Champions) as another institute member who could be a suspect since he’s involved in a romantic triangle isn’t given enough to do but he’s still very solid.
Director Clive Donner had a very up-and-down career which included quite a few spectacular flops. His approach in this film is a little eccentric but it’s interesting. He comes up with some nice compositions and a few cool camera angles.
This movie is part of Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 2 boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent.
The Sinister Man isn’t exactly a good movie but it has plenty of energy and a few intriguingly odd moments. I found it to be strangely appealing. It’s very Edgar Wallace and it’s very B-movie. Recommended.
Friday, May 18, 2018
Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward) arrives in Hong Kong. She is looking for her husband. He’s a photojournalist who decided there would be a great opportunity for a story in China. Unfortunately he didn’t bother to get permission to enter the People’s Republic and since he departed from Hong Kong no-one has heard anything of him. Both the British authorities in Hong Kong and the American consul have made enquiries but have hit a brick wall. Mrs Hoyt is however a woman who does not give up easily.
Hank Lee is willing to help Jane Hoyt to get her husband out of China, but his motives are rather complicated. He’s fallen for Jane in a big way but he wants to win her fair and square which means he has to rescue her husband. Then she can choose, either Hank or her husband.
Finally however it is going to be necessary to take some pretty risky steps to rescue that missing husband. It’s a bit of a harebrained scheme and Inspector Merryweather is not the sort of man to get mixed up in such nonsense but nonetheless he does get mixed up in it.
Gable was 54 when he made this picture, and a rather weatherbeaten 54 at that. He’s still Clark Gable though, he still has the mischievous charm and he still has the charisma.
Gene Barry plays the missing husband and unfortunately doesn’t get a great deal to do.
For me the best thing about the movie is the evocation of a lost world. Hong Kong under British rule, the whole expatriate thing with Europeans slowly going to seed in the tropics, it’s a strange, exotic and glamorous world and it’s all gone now.
The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers a good anamorphic transfer.
Soldier of Fortune had plenty of potential but the surprisingly flabby script lets it down a bit and director Edward Dmytryk doesn’t quite manage to generate enough of a spark to ignite the story. It does look great and the acting is very good and it’s reasonably entertaining so it’s worth a rental.
It's interesting to compare this one with Lady of the Tropics, with similar settings and vaguely similar themes. Neither film is a complete success but both are of interest.
Sunday, May 13, 2018
Bill Carey (Robert Taylor) is young, well-educated, good-looking, charming and penniless. Being penniless isn’t too much of a problem. He survives by being a kind of professional house-guest, his accomplishments ensuring him a welcome among the wealthy. There is no doubt that sooner or later he will snare himself an heiress. In fact he’s well on the way to securing such an heiress when the movie opens.
Manon knows it would be very foolish to become involved with Bill. It cannot end well for either of them. But of course they fall in love anyway. They intend to get married and Bill will take Manon back to America with him. Things do not turn out so smoothly. Bill and Manon find themselves trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare when Manon is refused a passport.
Modern viewers are likely to focus on the doomed inter-racial romance but the plot is actually not quite that straightforward. It’s Manon’s difficulties with the French authorities that drive the plot to its inevitable conclusion but it’s worth noting that these difficulties are caused more by the not quite respectable aspect of Manon’s character than the not quite French aspect. Whether she is actually a courtesan or has simply been the mistress of powerful men is not entirely clear. It’s also worth noting that Manon does have a habit of being economical with the truth, and even out-and-out deceitful. That’s what makes the movie a bit more interesting - Manon is not just an innocent victim of social prejudice, she has created some of her own problems and when she feels trapped her instinct is to lie. She’s a sympathetic but very much a flawed heroine.
Robert Taylor seems to me to be a terribly underrated actor. He got a lot of lightweight roles but his performances were always more than adequate and on those occasions when he landed meatier roles he was often very impressive. This is not one of his more demanding roles, being pure melodrama, but I can’t really see how his performance can be faulted.
Lady of the Tropics has been released on made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series. I caught this one on TCM so I can’t comment on the DVD transfer.
I’m always suspicious of Hollywood movies dealing with “social problems” since they’re almost invariably clumsy, obvious and heavy-handed but Lady of the Tropics is less heavy-handed than most. It is certainly overheated and melodramatic but for me those are features not bugs. It looks splendid and Lamarr’s odd but interesting performance adds interest. I think this one is worth na look. Recommended.
Saturday, May 5, 2018
Ursula (Bardot) is an innocent young girl fresh from convent school and eager to discover love. She’s spending some time with her aunt and uncle in Spain. The uncle, Comte Miguel de Ribera (José Nieto), is something of a lecher. In fact he has just been responsible for driving one of the village girls to drown herself in the well. This has earned him the enmity of the girl’s brother Lambert (Stephen Boyd). The comte also has a sadistic streak combined with ruthlessness and a certain degree of physical cowardice.
Ursula doesn’t think much of her uncle right from the start and she thinks even less of him when he tries to ravish her.
Ursula has stumbled into a web of romantic intrigues and she’s somewhat bewildered. The rising tensions end in murder and the murder is complicated by betrayal and Lambert finds himself on the run from the police, accompanied by Ursula.
So this is now definitely a couple on the run movie, but it’s not the kind of couple on the run movie that you would get from a Hollywood film-maker (or even a British film-maker for that matter). There’s no action. There’s a growing sense of entrapment though - we feel that Lambert and Ursula are unlikely to escape in the long run. The odds just seem to be stacked against them.
The film also has a certain affinity to the western genre, which may perhaps be due more to the scenery than anything else.
By the time Roger Vadim directed this film he and Bardot had already divorced although they would go on to make several further movies together.
Vadim’s movies are certainly uneven but they’re often odd and interesting, such as the rather wonderful Please, Not Now (1961) and the intriguing psycho-sexual melodrama Love on a Pillow (1962). Both of which incidentally starred Bardot.
I have a definite soft spot for Brigitte Bardot. She was at her best in romantic comedies but was willing to take on more serious roles. Her quirky performances tend to be most successful in films that are themselves slightly quirky.
Alida Valli adds the right touch of thwarted passion as the aunt. Stephen Boyd is quite good - he’s often dismissed as wooden but his detached performance conveys the essential fatalism of his character.
The Night Heaven Fell was released on DVD in Region 1 but the disc seems to be a bit hard to find these days. I can’t comment on the disc quality since I caught this movie on television (luckily in a rather nice letterboxed print).